LYME-OLD LYME — The Board of Education voted 7-2 on Wednesday to allow the district’s security officers to begin carrying concealed weapons in the regional schools beginning next fall, even as some members of the public and some board members urged the board to “slow down.”
In a packed meeting room, about a dozen members of the public offered comment both for and against the proposal. Those against argued that the school should focus on preventative measures like mental health supports and said they felt introducing guns into the schools could negatively affect the school climate. Those in favor said that they felt the armed officers would be able to protect the children and that children felt safer having a security presence at their schools.
“No matter their training, our district response to the threat of a school shooting should not be based on our feelings or on the protective feelings we should all share towards our students, or on anecdotes or our intuition, it must be based on relevant science and on the psychology of potential perpetrators,” said Olaf Bertram-Nothnagel, a local resident.
Anna Davis, a current student at the high school, said she didn’t feel that introducing guns into the situation would be helpful.
“I’m familiar with the two security guards around campus. I feel they are a friendly presence, and I feel that the second that they’re carrying around the gun, that entire mood changes,” said Davis.
Former Lyme-Old Lyme Board Chair Diane Linderman told the board that she wanted to see the board take the same approach to security as they had when COVID hit in 2020 — bringing together a group of community members, parents and teachers to come up with a plan, and then communicating that plan to the community.
“I think it’s important that we look at data, I think that’s what we should be doing for the next few months and considering that much more thoroughly that we have been doing this far,” said Linderman.
Scott Brown, a retired principal of Lyme-Old Lyme High School, also asked that the board take more time to consider the evidence that arming security guards would be the right call.
“I would stress, slow down. Slow down on this one, please,” said Brown.
Several parents and community members brought up a 2021 study in the Journal of American Pediatrics Association that found that having an armed officer present on campus was associated with higher casualties. Multiple parents, like Brown, asked that the board take more time to consider the issue before making a decision.
Other community members said they were in favor of arming the school guards.
Trevor Kegley, a 2013 Old Lyme graduate and a U.S. Army veteran, said he felt having the security guards armed was worth it if it meant the children were protected.
“How is it that [we arm our] hospitals, airports, bus, train stations, bank stores, gates, celebrities, mail trucks, parades? Is a bus ticket or a Christmas present, or a paper dollar bill more precious than a child?” he asked.
Megan Anderson, who has four children in the district, said that her fourth grader told her that she was afraid to go to school, but that the child said she felt safer with a police officer’s presence.
“I think kids are used to seeing a police car at school. I think they realize the policeman have guns. And I was surprised when my daughter said, ‘I like seeing the security there,’” she said.
A quick response
Lyme-Old Lyme Schools currently employ four security guards — one at Lyme Consolidated School, one at Mile Creek School and two in alternating shifts at the tri-school campus on Lyme Street. Ron Turner, the district’s facilities director and head of security, who is a former state trooper, would also be allowed to carry a gun on campus.
In a board of education meeting on June 1, Superintendent Ian Neviaser said that the idea of arming the security guards was really motivated by a single factor: response time.
“If you look at any of the information coming out of any school shootings … these all happen within minutes, and having something there to stop that, to protect our children is something that I think we need to consider,” said Neviaser.
Neviaser said the district had considered introducing a school resource officer a number of years back, but that he didn’t believe it would make sense to have one person trying to cover three separate campuses. He also said that the cost of having an SRO would equate to around $200,000 per year.
According to Connecticut state law, anyone who serves as an armed school security guard in public schools must have been a former municipal or state police officer and must have left the force in good standing. All of the district’s security guards are either former police officers or former corrections officers who have been trained to the standards of the state Police Officers Standards and Training Council, which oversees police officer training.
Neviaser estimated that it would cost an additional $43 to $48,000 a year in compensation, supplies, insurance and training for five armed security guards, plus a one-time cost of $8,900 to purchase the weapons. Officers would have to be re-certified every year and receive annual firearms training.
Neviaser said that all the security guards in the district were “fully on board” with the idea.
Across the region
Lyme-Old Lyme is not the only school district in the region considering the use of armed security guards. Jenn Byars, superintendent of Amity Regional School District, told CT Examiner that her district began considering the use of armed guards several years ago. She said that the high cost of school resource officers also factored into the decision making.
Mike Yamin, superintendent of Region 16 schools, said his district began using armed security guards five years ago. He said the officers cost the district half as much as having SROs, but would be trained in the same way.
New Milford Public Schools are also seeking to hire three additional armed security guards, according to CT Insider. The district currently has one armed security guard stationed at one of the elementary schools. Other districts, including Regional School Districts 10, 15 and 16, Derby and Newtown, also have armed school security officers.
Neviaser told CT Examiner that he had spoken to several other school districts about their use of armed school security guards.
“They all speak very highly of it and they feel like it has given a level of comfort to people in the buildings and the parents that send kids to school every day,” said Neviaser.
He also emphasized that the districts told him that, because the weapons are concealed, people quickly forget that the security guards are armed.
“So the concern of students being worried about a gun being on someone’s hip — they’re not going to see it. And down the road, it very well might not even be something that they are even aware of,” said Neviaser.
“One building block of the entire wall”
At the Wednesday meeting, Neviaser presented the results of a ThoughtExchange, a kind of community forum in which parents, teachers and a handful of students responded to the idea of having armed school security guards in the district.
According to comments in the ThoughtExchange, about 200 of the 419 people who offered comments indicated that they were in favor of having armed guards. The remaining participants either said they were not in favor, offered other options, or said they still had questions, or other miscellaneous thoughts.
Board members Martha Shoemaker and Anna James, who ultimately voted against the motion, said they wanted more time to hear from community members. Shoemaker said she wanted to hear more from the district’s teachers.
“I strongly encourage the teachers in this district to get up and speak up,” said Shoemaker. “I think we need to take more time. I’m not saying yes to it, I’m not saying no to it, I’m saying we need more time.”
James said she wanted to make sure that a majority of parents were in favor of arming the guards before they made the decision.
“There’s research that needs to be analyzed, experts that need to testify, child development experts that will … identify potential impact. I think we’re moving too fast,” she said.
Other board members, however, said that deciding to arm the security guards was not a “knee-jerk reaction” to the recent shooting in Texas, but had been under discussion for a long time. Neviaser said that the district had been talking about armed guards in the schools for 10 years, even before the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“It could be seen as a knee-jerk reaction … but I think on the other hand, it’s one more piece of the puzzle to figure out how to keep the kids, at least for a few minutes, safer,” said Board member Jenn Miller.
Both board members and Neviaser pointed out that arming the security guards was only one piece in a much larger security plan, which included things like shatter-proof glass, window shades, alarms on the phones and radios in all the classrooms.
“This proposal is one building block of the entire wall that we’re trying to build.” added Staab. “They are all small pieces that come together that make that forcefield around our schools.”
At an earlier board meeting, Staab pointed out the need to address the mental health challenges that students are having in the aftermath of COVID.
Neviaser said the district was implementing social-emotional learning and problem-solving with younger children, and that they had “homework-free” weekends to take off the stress for students. He said the district wanted to make sure that the students’ well-being was the most important thing.
But in the Wednesday night meeting, board member Laura Dean-Frazier said that addressing mental health was something that would take a long time.
“I just feel up until we get these things figured out and we see some things happening in place, I want to know that the children and the people in the school buildings are protected,” she said.
Mary Powell St. Louis, who said she had served on the safety committee for many years, echoed the fact that this was simply a next step as the committee tried to look at how the district could improve student safety.
“This is an appropriate step of continuous improvement for the security measures for region 18. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s the right time to do it,” she said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the vote was 8 to 2.